Posts tagged ‘extinction’

The Carolina Parakeet

The Carolina Parakeet, one of the bird sculptures currently on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was distinguished by its beautiful plumage and its very long tail. Although it was initially found in vast areas of the United States, its numbers began dwindling in the 19th century. The last parakeet was sighted in 1904, and the bird was declared extinct in 1939.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History.

The Carolina Parakeet Sculpture

The Carolina parakeet sculpture in the Enid A. Haupt Garden by artist Todd McGrain.

The Carolina parakeet was found in forested areas and swampy regions of the United States, stretching from the southeastern United States to the Great Plains and west to the Mid-Atlantic region. A small bird, it weighed a mere ten ounces. It was distinguished by its colorful feathers, which ranged from yellow and orange to several shades of green. Due to urbanization, its habitats began to contract in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even in 1831, John James Audubon commented that, along the Mississippi, the number of Carolina parakeets was less than half those that existed a mere fifteen years earlier.

The demise of the parakeet was the result of several trends or causes which operated individually and collectively; these can be summarized as deforestation, decoration, displacement, and disease.

Deforestation robbed the birds of food and nesting sites, thereby killing or displacing many flocks. Moreover, habitat destruction made hunting more effective because it concentrated the birds, making them more vulnerable to hunters. Farmers and those who had small orchards saw the birds as pests. Many parakeets fell prey to hunters trying to protect their crops. When one bird was wounded, it would cry in distress, a call that summoned others of the flock. Entire flocks were shot as the birds rallied around a wounded bird.

Carolina Parakeet by Audubon

Plate 26 of Birds of America (1827-1838) by John James Audubon depicting the Carolina Parrot. (via eol.)

The birds were also vulnerable to tastes in fashion: the parakeet’s beautiful feathers were used to decorate hats. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York noted that, walking around Manhattan, he had spotted feathers from some 40 native species of birds decorating woman’s hats. The feather trade was a lucrative business, with hunters receiving twice the price of gold for an ounce of the coveted plumes. Although Congress enacted legislation to prohibit interstate commerce in certain types of feathers, the laws had too many loopholes to curtail the trade. By 1898 the prevailing fashion had had such an impact that environmentalists and ornithologists attempted to shame women for wearing hats with feathers. One New York Times article titled “Murderous Millinery” stressed that women invited public stigma “by exhibiting themselves . . . in the relics of murdered innocence.” The Audubon Society also urged “bird hat boycotts,” suggesting that women instead wear environmentally-correct “audubonnets” bedecked with ribbons and other non-feathered ornaments.

Another contributory cause of the Carolina parakeets declining numbers may have been the importation of honeybees, which evicted the birds from the cavities in hollow trees where they nested. Finally, some scientists have hypothesized that exotic poultry diseases may have decimated the parakeet population that had survived other threats and were in protected habitats. Whatever the reason or reasons, today Carolina parakeets can be appreciated only in museums and ornithological collections, where they are mounted specimens rather than part of a gregarious flock.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

October 14, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Labrador Duck

Labrador duck sculpture by Todd McGrain

Labrador Duck sculpture by Todd McGrain.

Of the four birds currently on display as sculptures in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Labrador duck is the one about which we know the least. Despite this—or perhaps because of this— the bird has spawned different theories about how it lived and how it eventually became extinct.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

The Labrador duck lived along the east coast of North America, from Canada to the Chesapeake. A small bird, it was a good diver and swimmer. It had a flat, square bill that allowed it to scoop up small fish and shells, on which it lived.

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), USNM 61300. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

Unlike other birds that became extinct because of specific practices or even a single cataclysmic event, the Labrador duck declined for unknown reasons. Its meat did not taste good, so the duck was not hunted widely. Nor was its plumage unique or particularly desirable. There is some speculation that the number of ducks began to decline when their main source of nourishment, a specific mollusk, was depleted by overfishing. Another possibility is that its eggs were widely hunted by predators, thereby reducing the number of birds. The story of the Labrador duck therefore underscores the interconnectedness of the natural world: change in one element can trigger further changes, eventually jeopardizing the existence of unique species.

Interestingly, the extinction of the Labrador duck has inspired both research and whimsy. Biologist Glen Chilton embarked on an 82,000-mile journey to explore the bird’s history, which he captured in his book The Curse of the Labrador Duck  (2009). More recently, A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013), a movie starring Ben Kingsley, centers on a group of teenagers’ quest to find the duck, which they do not think is extinct.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

August 12, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

Lost Bird Project: Modern Extinction

Interning at the Smithsonian Gardens this winter has been an enriching and rewarding experience.  Getting the opportunity to work on so many different projects with so many different people in an intellectually-stimulating environment makes every day exciting and gratifying.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist in The Lost Bird Project’s arrival at the Smithsonian. Sculptor Todd McGrain began The Lost Bird Project to bring awareness to North American birds that have become extinct within the last two centuries. Todd has made five cast-bronze statues to immortalize five extinct birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk. He has traveled across the country installing his statues at locations where the birds were last seen. His statues have also been displayed at various institutions across the country.

Heath Hen sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Heath Hen installed in its new home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden parterre.

Smithsonian Gardens is proud to host Todd’s statues in the Enid A. Haupt Garden located adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The Passenger Pigeon statue will be on display at the Urban Bird Habitat Garden located at the northwest corner of the National Museum of Natural History as a companion piece to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America opening on June 24, 2014. The five sculptures will be on display through March 15, 2015.

Lost Bird Project sculptures

The Lost Bird Project bronze sculptures in situ.

The stories of these birds are tragic and highlights just how fragile nature can be. One-hundred years ago, massive flocks (numbering in the millions) of Passenger Pigeons flew across the Unites States. It was inconceivable at the time that the huge Passenger Pigeon population could become extinct. The birds became a stable food source across the country and as the demand for Passenger Pigeons grew, the birds were hunted to the point of extinction. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.

Carolina Parakeet sculpture by Todd McGrain

Artist Todd McGrain unveils the Carolina Parakeet.

These two exhibits remind us of the importance of understanding how as humans we are intrinsically linked to our environment.  Whether directly or indirectly, humans have a huge influence on our natural world and our every action affects many other organisms. These birds represent just a mere fraction of the species we have lost over the past two centuries. Pollution, excessive hunting and fishing, global warming, habitat loss are all anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the extinction of many species across the globe. By bringing awareness to this issue, we can work towards preventing such extinctions from happening in the future.

 -Tammy Lee, Smithsonian Gardens landscape architecture intern

 

Map of The Lost Bird Project in the Smithsonian gardens.

April 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment


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